This past July, in the middle of a summer of political discontent, there occurred a small reason for hope. In seven American cities, thousands of men and women who toil at fast-food chain restaurants picketed in loud and energetic one-day strikes. They demanded the seemingly impossible: a wage of $15 an hour, almost double the rate many workers now receive for jobs that require them to stand up for many hours, serving an estimated fifty million people every day.
Like any demonstration, the short walk-outs were not designed to last. Without a union contract, workers are vulnerable to being fired if they miss even a day pressing keys on a cash register or flipping burgers on a scalding grill. Nevertheless, the experimental action was more inspiring than any protest against our unequal society since Occupy surged into prominence two long years ago.
In a country that badly needs the labor movement to revive and a poor people’s campaign to emerge, the one-day strikes represented the promise of both. “These companies aren’t magically going to make our lives better,” Terrance Wise, who works at two fast-food outlets in Kansas City, told the New York Times. “We can sit back and stay silent and continue to live in poverty or…we can step out and say something and let it be known that we need help.”
For decades now, intellectuals and activists on the left have documented the hardships caused by stagnant wages, the proliferation of part-time jobs, and the erosion of union numbers and power. But oceans of words can accomplish little or nothing unless the people who need help demand it by organizing to help themselves. That is how, a century ago, garment makers secured safer factories, how auto workers gained the right to collective bargaining in the 1930s, and how teachers won decent salaries and a measure of job security in the 1960s and ’70s.
Conservatives, predictably, accused that mythical beast, “Big Labor,” of fomenting the one-day strikes merely to recruit new members and warned that fast-food employers would lay off thousands of workers if forced to pay them more. For years, such cockeyed economics have distorted public policy, making the idea of a decent wage for some of the most essential, visible workers in the nation appear self-defeating, if not downright utopian. Indeed, the Service Employees International Union did help orchestrate the summer protests. But the SEIU neither controlled them nor got anything but a smidgen of publicity in return.
Of course, to improve their lives, the people who make a poor living at McDonald’s and other franchises will have to stage more than a one-day show of discontent. But no change will come without further experiments in turning anger into resistance.
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